“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” ―Pablo Picasso
Note: An updated and improved version of this essay has been posted here.
All human beings are creative by nature. Young children know this in their hearts, but as we grow older most of us begin to have doubts. For those raised in highly competitive societies, our creative efforts were often criticized by parents or teachers, our work compared to “standards” and expectations held by others.
As a result, most people come to believe that creative ability is rare. What we don’t realize is that this is a cultural myth, that it was part of an organized effort by schools and society (especially those in positions of power) to snuff out creativity and independence, to encourage obedience and conformity.
In fact, each of us has great untapped creative potential, but like seeds, our unique talents needs to be watered, cultivated and nurtured. Here below are a few ideas on how to help others be more skillful and creative, and remove any doubts you may still hold about your own potential.
First, seek joy, not perfection. It’s in our power to cultivate a love of learning and creativity within ourselves and others. Most skilled artists get great happiness and satisfaction from being creative, they enjoy making new things. Part of that process is making mistakes, taking risks and experimenting. This is the only way to improve our skills over time. With creativity and learning, failure is not something to avoid, its just part of the process.
When young people are not critical and judgmental (about their mistakes) there is an intrinsic happiness that arises. This is the joy one sees in young children, which institutional schooling and standardized testing will crush or inhibit. It’s okay to have high expectations, as long as they are not rigid standards that snuff out a child’s confidence, curiosity, joy an interest.
One of the best ways to inspire learning and enjoy being creative is to encourage young people to imitate those they most love and gain inspiration from. All artists begin by studying, copying and imitating others who inspire them. Bob Dylan imitated Woody Guthrie’s style of singing, Van Gogh made copies of Japanese prints and pointillist paintings, the Beatles began by covering the songs of other musicians they enjoyed.
I believe that children should be encouraged to look at skillful people who inspire them- writers, poets, artists, scientists, musicians, directors, actors, athletes, parents, relatives- as their personal teachers, mentors and heroes. Skillful role models then become an essential part of the environment that initiates our growth, enabling our own skills and confidence to develop.
As mentioned earlier, to maintain confidence, it is essential not to compare ourselves with others. This is a big killer of intrinsic motivation and creativity, especially in schools where children are constantly tested and given grades. Most of us gave up certain activities and art forms because we saw how well others were doing and began to doubt our own potential.
This form of schooling is “mis-educative,” as John Dewey put it, because the teaching environment actually discourages growth and interest in the future. The best way to nurture confidence is to experience joy with an activity, to accept ourselves as beginners and just have fun. As Maria Montessori put it, “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”
To enjoy the creative process it can be helpful to understand the role of mindfulness and flow in building skills and developing greater mastery. When we are learning and being creative, mindful concentration results in an enjoyable psychological state of focused attention sometimes called “being in the zone” or “flow.”
Experiencing flow is a sign that your skills are being challenged, that you are growing and learning. Whether its playing the piano, reading books or riding a bicycle- a person’s skills will improve because of all the time and practice they put into an activity.
With creativity its also essential to encourage freedom, autonomy and self-direction. I live in Japan, and one of the key cultural differences I’ve noticed is that much emphasis is placed on imitation and mindfulness, but that creative freedom is discouraged.
The result is countless children and adults who have mastered the skills of piano or violin, but have never written their own songs. Creativity requires that we experiment, explore and take risks, listen to (and express) the music rising in our souls.
In a sense, everyone’s life is a potential work of art, but most of us were not taught to think that way. Modern cultures tell us that creativity is something rare. This is just not true. We’ve been creative since before we were born. We are the children of a Creative Universe, each of us a unique expression of that creativity.
Every activity we engage in can be an opportunity for learning, joy and creativity. As we get in synch with our soul’s natural potential, life itself begins to carry and guide us, like how a current carries a boat down a river.
Thinking too much about the future (or what others expect of us) is a distraction that blocks people from experiencing the simple joys of being creative, talented, alive and in relationships with others, here now on this planet.
So many of the world’s problems and unhappiness comes from a sense of something missing, people chasing after happiness, material success, future outcomes and pleasure. Schools have trained us to think this way, to be consumers and workers focused on the future, rather than creators and producers anchored in the present.
All along, we have had the power to be innovative, to create happiness in the moment, not far off in the distance or the future, but right here and now. As we mindfully engage the world, we become both the art and the artist- role models and agents of co-creative transformation in the world.